Meet Digby
the Guide Horse

26 April 2019

We speak to the trainer of Digby, who is believed to be the UK's first guide horse...

Commuters in a busy English city encountered a strange sight recently as they boarded the underground train service.

 

While people may be used to standing on two feet on busy shuttles, it’s rather less common to see a passenger on four.

 

For among those on the carriage was a wonderful American miniature named Digby, who is believed to be the UK’s very first guide horse.

 

Digby’s journey on the Tyne and Wear Metro was the latest stage in his training as breeder Katy Smith, who runs KL Pony Therapy in North Yorkshire, seeks to prepare this very special and cherished young horse for life assisting someone with sight problems.

"Digby is
absolutely
thriving and
loves his work"

The trip on the Metro was designed to familiarise Digby with the sights and sounds of travelling on a transport system.

Being comfortable travelling will be important as he is due to be given to Helena Hird – who is partially-sighted and lives and works in London – towards the end of next year. The train journey gave him the chance to experience trains, stations, ticket gates and lifts.

 

So, what inspired Katy to train guide horses?

 

Katy has been running an equine therapy centre for many years, and found American miniatures to be the perfect animal to take to schools, care homes and other facilities because of their size.

 

Around eight years ago she became aware of these diminutive horses being used as an alternative to dogs as guides for the blind and partially-sighted in the US. She travelled to New York to visit trainer Alexandra Kirkland and was inspired by 17-year-old mini Panda, who was being schooled as a guide and even travelled around in a car!

 

“I think I first read about guide horses on the internet,” Katy told FEI.org. “I immediately saw it as a great idea. They are ideal for people that can’t have a dog. There are a small minority that can’t have dogs for allergies or religious reasons.

 

“Also, these horses can live to be 45 to 50 years of age. So, once trained, these horses are a long-term partner.

 

“I feel we are offering something different and it means we can make the most of these horses. In many ways they are like a dog with their loyalty and attitude.”

 

Katy was determined that her first guide horse should be one she bred herself.

 

She wanted to know everything about the animal, being aware of all their experiences and anything that might spook them ahead of a career as a guide.

 

Digby was born in June 2017 and Katy immediately identified a strong and calm character that would make him an ideal guide.

 

“He seemed to be very different from other foals I’d bred,” she says. “He seemed to be able to adapt very quickly.

 

“He’s so intelligent and he’s always been a people’s horse. He likes his friends, but he chooses people.”

 

Katy has always put Digby’s wellbeing at the forefront, and the horse has so far thrived in the training schedule. As well as travelling on public transport, Digby is able to remember routes, safely cross roads, find post boxes and push buttons.

 

“We have trust in each other,” she says. “He wants to do things well and show people that he can do things. His wellbeing is paramount for me. If there was any sign of distress we would not continue. He calls the shots.”

 

Digby’s train journey was perhaps his biggest test so far.

 

Digby’s big day out was supervised by Metro staff and throughout the visit he wore a harness, his special ‘thunderpants’, and a special-set booties to protect his hooves.

 

“The tube was everything I hoped for and more,” Katy says. “He took it in his stride. I knew he wouldn’t be scared, but I didn’t realise how in charge and calm he would be.

 

“We went through 10 tunnels and going from the darkness to light didn’t spook him. He liked looking out of the window to see where he was going.”

 

Digby’s fellow passengers were delighted to share the journey with this wonderful horse.

 

“We were thrilled to help out Digby the guide horse with his training. We’ve loved being involved in such a wonderful and heart-warming story, and our customers have loved it too,” said Tyne & Wear Metro’s Chris Carson.

 

“We do a lot of guide dog training on Metro, but a guide horse isn’t a sight that we’ve ever seen. It’s brightened up everyone’s day.

“Digby took all the sights and sounds of the Metro system in his stride. I hope that the training has been of great benefit to Digby and his owner ahead of his big move to London.”

 

Digby is proving both an able student and teacher as he is now actually showing one of Katy’s other horses, a mare, how to ascend and descend stairs as she begins guide horse training.

 

Katy is confident of Digby’s success as a guide when he eventually moves in with Helena, who has decided she wants a horse rather than dog because horses live for much longer.

 

“So far he is proving that you can train them to guide,” she says. “He remembers the route he’s meant to be on. If I deviate, he stops, which is the same as guide dog.

 

“I think the kind of person that might choose a guide horse needs to be a ‘horsey’ person. They should be an animal lover with a good knowledge of horses. It would not be appropriate if they don’t have any equestrian knowledge.

 

“Digby is absolutely thriving and loves his work. At the moment I feel he was born to do this.”

 

Follow the FEI on Facebook for more great stories from the equestrian world…

 

Words by Richard Mulligan

Images courtesy of Nexus / KL Pony Therapy

+

Manage your cookies